Abraham Lincoln once said that if he was given nine hours to cut down a tree, he would spend six hours sharpening his axe. Lincoln knew the importance of planning – and so do most sales reps when it comes to making sales calls. Unfortunately they’re taking longer than ever to do that planning and spending less time analyzing the information they find.
It’s a nationwide trend. A May 2005 study by Outsell (www.outsell.com) found that people are spending 13 hours a week gathering and analyzing information on the Web – up from 8 hours a week in 2001. At the same time the percentage of time spent analyzing the information has dropped from 56% to 42%. “Right now there’s a lot of hunting and pecking, Googling, trolling from one site to another and random walking through the Internet,” observes Paul Pellman, executive vice president of product and marketing at Hoover’s, Inc. (www.hoovers.com). “There are a lot of business information resources that have tools in place to let you do things more efficiently.”
To stop the ever-expanding cycle of random searches, Pellman recommends salespeople follow these three steps to keep their precall planning efforts efficient and focused.
1. Know the best sources of information. Pellman recommends sales managers provide their teams with a list of recommended sites and information sources so reps know where to go to get answers to their questions. “Leave it to the discretion of the rep to determine which sites to visit but provide some guidance,” says Pellman. He asserts that online business information resources are the most useful and efficient means of gathering information because they are checked for accuracy and data decay. They also provide a one-stop-shop for industry information, news, company relationships and more. Because these are a single source of information, however, they might not have the in-depth data you need about every company, so combining them with other data sources can give you a more complete picture of the prospect. Many companies are making these information sources available via one–click access from their company portal, further speeding their reps’ research process.
2. Find out what you want to find out. Imagine you’re sitting in front of the client. What do you want to know? Write down those questions and then start looking for the answers. “By asking yourself key questions you’d want to ask the client, you can find specific answers rather than just general information,” says Pellman. Once you’ve got that information you can create a custom list of intelligent, targeted questions to ask the client in person. Pellman, who gets a lot of sales calls, understands the value of these targeted questions. He says a quick goodbye to reps who call and start asking basic questions about what Hoovers does. Pellman is more inclined to talk, however, to reps who display some understanding of the information business and ask if Hoovers is facing certain kinds of challenges because he knows they’ve done their research.
3. Research faster. Once you’ve established a method for finding information, learn how to mine your sources more quickly and efficiently. For example, you might ask your sources to push information to you instead of having to go find it every time. If you’ve got a certain company on your radar screen, organizations such as Hoovers can push news and information about that company to you as it becomes available. Also consider having information delivered to your PDA so you can stay up to date with news about your prospects in moments of down time such as waiting at a client’s office. “In a sales environment that’s more competitive than ever you need a competitive edge to cut through the clutter,” says Pellman. “You do that by being the most knowledgeable.”